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How to solve the STEM gender equality equation

Sharon Florentine | Nov. 4, 2015
It's common knowledge that women are underrepresented in STEM careers. What's less clear is what businesses can do to better attract and retain women in their fields.

How to solve the STEM gender equality equation

It wasn't until Christianne M. Corbett began working as an industrial designer that she gave serious thought to the lack of women in computing and engineering. The desire to explore the underlying reasons for the underrepresentation of women in these fields was fueled by her master's degree in cultural anthropology, prompting her to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology in an effort to get to the bottom of these issues.

Corbett, American Association of University Women (AAUW) senior researcher and Catherine Hill, AAUW vice president of research, co-authored a paper based on their findings, titled "Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women's Success in Engineering and Computing," which Corbett discussed at a session at last month's Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference.

Not surprisingly, the research revealed that women remain drastically underrepresented in the fields of engineering and computing, but Corbett's research also highlighted best practices and recommendations for increasing the proportion of women in STEM fields.

"We not only wanted to know why there are so few women in STEM, we wanted to actively work to find out what can be done to address this. Women make up approximately 26 percent of computing professionals; Black women are just 3 percent and Hispanic women are just 1 percent. It'd be one thing if these numbers accurately reflected women's representation in society as a whole, but they don't. Women are about half of the overall population -- so these numbers are only about half what they should be," says Corbett.

Prime the pipeline

Significant efforts have been made to increase the pipeline of women in high school and college and to encourage them to pursue STEM careers, but that's not enough, says Corbett. In 2010 alone, the U.S. spent $3.4 billion in federal funds to address Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education talent shortages, and to help improve representation of women and people of color in these fields. Programs like Girls Who Code are also trying to address the underrepresentation of women in computing through intervention and education-focused initiatives.

Acknowledge bias

What else can be done? It begins with greater acknowledgement of the problem, Corbett says. "Effective solutions require that we first acknowledge that we're all affected by gender bias. While overt biases have declined, unconscious biases still remain, whether or not we endorse those biases - even women have them about other women," Corbett says. Don't believe it? Check out the Gender Implicit Association Test available from Harvard University to see how ingrained these biases can be, Corbett says.


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